Hope for rare habitat after controversial plans go back to drawing board

Controversial plans to move a rare habitat in a Bath field to make way for 37 houses are being sent back to the drawing board.

Image © Boyesrees Architects / B&NES Council

Former Bath and North East Somerset Council leader Dine Romero revealed that the land at Englishcombe Lane is no longer set to be transferred to Aequus, the authority’s development company.

Instead, it could be sold off with planning permission to another developer, but she is keen to see fresh designs drawn up that deliver social housing and protect the tufa flushes, a rare geological phenomenon.

There was outcry when the council approved its own application for the site last August, weeks after it declared an ecological emergency.

Councillor Romero blamed the seven-month wait for the rethink on the coronavirus pandemic and said she did not have the power to pull the plug on the project, as some had claimed.

She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “Englishcombe Lane is no longer in the transfer agreement between the council and Aequus.

“The council is exploring other options on the use of the land – can something else be considered that doesn’t impact on the tufa flushes?”

Under the approved proposals, the tufa flushes were to be transferred to another site, despite the council’s own ecologist casting doubt on whether the move would work.

Critics accused it of “gross hypocrisy” and more than 5,500 people signed a petition urging it to rethink the decision.

“The case that’s been made around the ecology has been well made. That’s partly what’s led to this change of direction,” said Cllr Romero, ward member for neighbouring Southdown.

“Cabinet will consider the options. There may be some form of housing. The tufa flushes would be considered as perhaps more valuable in terms of how any building would be sited.”

B&NES Council wanted to build 37 homes | Image © Boyesrees Architects / B&NES Council

She said the council could remove the site from its next Local Plan but it had been allocated for housing for 20 years and a planning inspector could put it back in.

“Ideally you wouldn’t want any development there,” she added. “The problem is we have to put homes somewhere.

“I would want to see a development that had an obvious social good attached to it. What I wouldn’t want to see is a development of executive-style housing.”

As council leader, Cllr Romero was the shareholder for Aequus, which is wholly owned by the authority, but she said she could not tell it to drop the plans.

“It was never the case I could have said just stop it – it has to go through the proper process. Having those discussions during the pandemic prolonged the process.

“If it’s not a viable proposition there will be choices that have to be made.

“One will be to do nothing. The other extreme could be to sell the land.”

Danny Groves, who has long spoken out against the development, said: “Whilst the residents group is pleased that the council appear to have removed the housing development on ecologically sensitive land to the rear of Englishcombe Lane from their own development company, ADL, no reason has yet been given to residents as to why.

“This is a positive step but we hope the council and its new leader, Kevin Guy, are now seeing sense and do not go against expert opinion, growing concerns from our local MP Wera Hobhouse, over 5,000 petition signatories against the build, and B&NES Council’s own declaration of an ecological emergency for Bath by selling the development on to another building company purely for financial gain.

“This development was always a bad idea and starkly at odds with the council’s positive stance on climate and ecology. It should be shelved and then removed from the plan altogether.”

Cllr Kevin Guy, who is in line to be the new council leader, said he had been frustrated by the lack of action.

“One of the hallmarks of me being the leader will be listening and making clear, decisive decisions,” he said.

Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter

Bath Echo